By Kirk Stelsel, CAE
Editor’s Note: The “Chairman’s Choice” feature story features projects selected by Ashley Smith, president of Smith-Midland Corp. and newly elected NPCA Chairman of the Board.
In 1960, a dairy farmer in Virginia named David Smith developed a way to keep his cattle from straying off by using concrete.
In 2017, his grandson, Ashley Smith, now heads Smith-Midland Corp., a successful precast concrete company with three locations, a wide range of products and a subsidiary company with six proprietary product lines licensed by precasters around the world.
What transpired in the decades between is a story of perseverance, innovation and collaboration. David’s son Rodney Smith, and Rodney’s sons Ashley, Jeremy, Matthew and Roderick, have not just grown, but advanced the company. The Smith-Midland team constantly seeks ways to push the boundaries of how it manufactures precast concrete, what it looks like and how it functions both during and after installation.
The three projects detailed here were handpicked by Ashley, NPCA Chairman of the Board, as examples of projects and products that exemplify Smith-Midland.
Classically Modern Luxury
When the owner of Cliffside Park Towne Centre in Cliffside Heights, N.J., first saw the renderings of his building, a $140 million, 13-story luxury apartment tower, he knew he wanted a more classical, turn-of-the-century limestone look. With that in mind, the Smith-Midland team worked with the client and the architect to evolve the design.
“He actually asked us what we thought and we said, ‘Well, you’re the client, so whatever you want we’ll work with you to get your vision out there,’” Ashley said. “We were able to help the owner and architect come up with a design that moved it towards his vision, and we helped them to standardize some of the patterns and the master molds.”
The design was finalized by Virgona & Virgona Architects and brought to life by Smith-Midland. Due to the versatility of the precast panels, the architects were able to customize the pattern to create a theme and give visual interest to the project while also maintaining consistency and cohesion.
“The experience with Ashley and Smith-Midland was wonderful,” said James Virgona of Virgona & Virgona Architects. “They were involved from the planning and design stage to the construction phase. The amount of documentation they provided, their management during construction, the field visits, and tours of the factory and finish selections were essential.
“That really made us comfortable with the material, and the color and finish consistency were outstanding.”
The majority of the panels for the project are SlenderWall panels, a licensed product of Smith-Midland’s subsidiary, Easi-Set Worldwide. SlenderWall panels are thermal- and fire-code compliant and their lighter weight and attached steel studs can help the owner reduce costs. The panels also come to the job site pre-insulated with a closed-cell foam.
The M-shaped panels used on the project permit larger windows and more natural light than usual. Smith-Midland had already used this design successfully on another building in New Jersey and plans to employ it on future projects as well. As Ashley saw the panels leaving the plant, he could tell the intricate design looked nice, but he had no idea what they would look like assembled on-site.
“I hadn’t been to the job site for about a month or so after the installation started, and by the time I got there a lot of panels had been put up and I was just impressed,” he said. “It’s our work, but to see it go from an architectural drawing to shop tickets to seeing it out on the building was really impressive. The first thing I did was I went and told the owner, ‘Hey, you’ve done a great job; it’s just an awesome building.’”
The Disappearing Act
Sometimes the general public is never meant to notice precast products, and sometimes extraordinary emphasis is placed on colors and architectural details to make them stand out. For a project at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C., Smith-Midland found themselves doing a little bit of both.
The retaining wall panels supplied required precise coloring and texture in order to blend into the surrounding area. The job came to Smith-Midland from general contractor Hensel Phelps, a client the company has worked with many times before on large-scale, complex projects.
“Hensel Phelps continues to come to us because they’re always looking to do something creative,” Ashley said. “They win their projects when there’s a multi-step process and you get evaluated on the package and the design. We’ve teamed up with them because we’ve come up with a lot of creative projects with them.”
The project’s original cast-in-place design would have required Hensel Phelps to tear out a road and divert traffic for the whole project. Instead, it decided on a soil-nail tieback wall where the client could continue using the road. The process started by spraying shotcrete and drilling back horizontally to cast steel connection plates into the shotcrete wall.
“You have a better looking wall this way,” said Kim Slusher, site manager for Hensel Phelps. “The joints all lined up well and the shoulder joints are set consistently. Speed of construction was good and the owner is pretty happy.”
Smith-Midland completed installation of the precast panels at night because that’s the only time the road could be closed. The installers positioned a crane truck above and a crew down below on a man lift. They would drop the panel from above and the crew would attach it to the wall.
The most complex part of the project was meeting the aesthetic requirements of the Smithsonian Institution, owner of the zoo. The wall needed to blend in and not show joints.
“We put little steps in the horizontal joints,” Ashley said. “When you go out today and look, if you didn’t know, you really wouldn’t be able to see them. They also didn’t want a pattern repeating so we had to come up with three patterns and mix them up horizontally and vertically along the face of the wall.”
In order to create the natural pattern, Architectural Polymers came to the site to find existing stone walls for castings. Following installation, a permanent, penetrating stain from Europe was hand applied by EverGreene Architectural Arts to mimic the look and color variations of a natural stone wall.
“We are proud of this project that exemplifies Smith-Midland’s ability to innovate, improve, and initiate products that are current and pleasing to the eye,” Ashley said. “The contractor and the project won a Craftsmanship Award from the Washington Building Congress, so our guys went up on stage and got an award for it. It was like the Academy Awards of construction.
“There were about 1,000 people at the Washington Hilton, lights, big screens, video – it was a pretty big deal. They all got dressed up and brought their wives.”
Leading the Way
Tysons, Va., formerly known as Tysons Corner, is on the rise. In fact, a sign on Route 7 reads, “Welcome to Tysons, America’s Next Great City,” and the city’s redevelopment has been well chronicled in The Washington Post.
The newest addition to the District of Columbia’s Metro, the Silver Line, was the catalyst. It connects Tysons to D.C., creating an easy way for commerce to move between the two areas without encountering gridlock traffic.
Luckily for Smith-Midland, the company’s headquarters is nearby, and it found its way in early. In addition to supplying products for the Silver Line, it worked on VITA, a luxury rental building and the first major residential tower for the redevelopment. The contractor, Donohoe Construction Co., chose Smith-Midland to manufacture the architectural panels. The project architect, Shalom Baranes Associates, placed a heavy emphasis on the shape and feel of the building, as well as the distinct gray color for the precast panels.
“We worked with Dynamic Color Solutions to achieve the color,” Ashley said. “We made 1-foot-by-1-foot-by-2-inch thick samples and sent those back and forth with the owner. You have to discern and listen and then make another sample until you winnow it down to what they’re looking for.”
The building’s shape is a folded, pleated floor plan and the architect wanted a skin that would form around that shape. As a result, the precast panels are offset every other floor and the resulting shape implies a weave, like a fabric, to make the skin fluent and appealing.
“For me, architecturally, precast concrete had all the flexibility we needed,” said Robert Sponseller, AIA, design principal, Shalom Baranes Associates. “Personally, this material is highly underutilized. A lot of architects use it too modestly in beige or white and I think the material has much more potential.
“I like to exploit its potential as a material so we used a zinc-gray color and did an unusual shape for the panel.”
As the concrete structure reached about a third of the way, Smith-Midland was able to start panel installation. Its crew would come in at night and use the tower crane that was used during the day to set panels on the lower floors, connecting them with thousands of inserts from fellow NPCA member JVI. Following them were the window installers. This method of trades following each other up the building enclosed it faster and saved the owner time and money.
“The panels are two stories tall and they’re all in the shape of a seven,” Ashley said. “You can see that when you look at the building. At grade, there are retail, high-end, white tablecloth restaurants and other high-end retail, so we have white precast panels with a horizontal thin rib pattern. So, that’s another texture and another color we did.”
Kirk Stelsel, CAE, is NPCA’s director of communication and marketing